The fort on St. Thomas

The fort in Charlotte Amalie bears the name Fort Christian after Christian V. It was built between 1672 and 1678 on a peninsula with a rocky outcrop in the bay and is the first and largest fort in the islands. The Danes had been attempting to take over St. Thomas for some years, but in 1672 the West India and Guinea Company sent out the experienced Caribbean merchant Jørgen Iversen Dyppel to establish the colony. His account book for the first year tells us quite a bit about the construction and economy of the fort. All prices are given in barrels of sugar. The total cost amounted to 32,336 barrels of sugar, which the Company therefore had to produce on its plantations to meet the cost of construction.

First a highly qualified master mason had to be found to take charge. Dyppel bought an experienced mason, the mulatto Simon Lamar, who could gain his personal freedom if he worked for the Company for seven years.

(Source: Account books 1672 – 1680, Danish National Archives)

The tall, metre-thick walls are built partly in stone and stand as a massive extension of the bedrock, supported by large buttresses built of brick, which was sailed over as ballast in the hulls of the ships. The fort also has walls built of the random rubble known locally as blue bit. The bricks needed were provided by 5-6 ships sailing with them as ballast. They were similar to Flensburg bricks, a smaller type widely used in Holland, Germany and Schleswig-Holstein. Local rain-forest timber like mahogany and the dark, heavy wood lignum vitae (‘wood of life’) was used for lintels above doors and windows, for shutters and for other elements of the building that needed wood.

The list lacks accounts for the lime mortar used for building the walls and rendering. The lime was probably produced on the island by burning coral and shells in a lime kiln, slaking it with water and mixing it with sand. Only 1520 roof tiles are accounted for, and they would hardly have covered more than the central building, known as Trygborg (safe castle), in the middle of the fort. Dyppel purchased wooden laths for the roof shingles, but noted that in his view the barrel staves for coopering could also be used instead of roof shingles. Nails are a relatively large item in the accounts. At this time nails were forged by hand, and in such large quantities they had to be imported, since local blacksmiths could not cope with the demand.

When Jørgen Iversen Dyppel sailed from Copenhagen, he had 190 people on board, 62 of them convicts. When the ships berthed at St. Thomas, 81 had died during the voyage, and another 72 died of the endemic fever within six months. Iversen’s group, which had been sent to colonize St. Thomas, was now reduced to 37. However, this number was soon supplemented by incoming planters from nearby English and Dutch islands.

The main task was to build Fort Christian, which was erected between 1672 and 1678. In the same period Iverson Dyppel acquired several enslaved Africans for the Company; their number varied as a result of deaths, runaways and resales. In 1680 the Company had 175 enslaved Africans. Some worked on the Company plantation, but many must have worked on the construction of the fort.

In the early colonial period it was not unusual for the work force to be contracted to work for the Company and subsequently win their freedom and the opportunity to establish themselves in the colony. These people were called indentured servs. Many poor European workers came to the West Indies on such contracts. They worked on plantations, and sometimes as soldiers or sailors. West Indians of African, native or mixed ancestry could be engaged on such terms. In this pioneering era slavery was not the only source of labour, but this changed during the first half of the 1700s, when the number of indentured servs decreased while the number of slaves increased.

In April 1672 Iversen Dyppel bought a female slave called Dona. In August she was traded for the master bricklayer, Simon Lamar, who was described as a “mulatto” born on the Dutch island of St. Eustatius, from which many residents of St. Thomas came. Simon Lamar had to work for seven years on the fort for the Company. This fact suggests that he was meant to return to his former owner when the building was finished. The owner may have been a Frenchman, Robert Lamar, who had settled on St. Thomas. In the late 1680s the primary sources show that Simon Lamar owned a plantation and a slave. He had a wife called Ebbonetie Bokollj, probably born on Nevis, a British Caribbean island, and they both belonged to the Reformed Church. Nevertheless, on 19th July 1691 a boy named Martin, the son of Simon Lamar and “Epe Nejns”, was baptized in the Lutheran church. Whether he had a second wife or this was a changed form of her name is not known, but by that time Simon Lamar’s family was living as freed Afro Caribbeans.

On his departure from the islands in 1680, Jørgen Iversen Dyppel reported that the fort had been finished. It consisted of four high bastions in a star shape with a tall tower in the middle called Trygborg, ‘the safe castle’, where the Governor, the pastor and the staff could seek protection during attacks. Around the fort a palisade of cactus had been planted to make it more impregnable. In 1678 the fort was threatened by the French from St. Croix, but it was not taken. In the fort there were a chapel, a kitchen, guardrooms, a central office and prison cells. The pantry, the stores, the clerks’ offices and the soldiers’ dormitories show that the fort was a small community in itself, where all the functions were covered. Homes for high and low, and work functions of many kinds were gathered within the walls. Storehouses were important – not only because of the risk of siege, but because many foods were imported from Europe and would keep in the cool rooms.

The core of the fortifications of Charlotte Amalie was Fort Christian, but they also included watchtowers and armoured outposts on the hills and points around the natural harbour. The fort was also there as protection against pirates, who had previously had a safe natural harbour in the bay.

Dyppel’s fate

As the first Governor, Jørgen Iversen Dyppel was responsible for the foundation of the colony, including the work force, construction, the parcelling-out of plantations and the production of goods to be sent home to Denmark. He was also responsible for justice and the enforcement of strict laws and punishments, as well as the religious education of the planter community and the enslaved Africans. Many of the helpers sent out there died, so Dyppel was even in charge of the church services and more. He was a harsh, at times even a sadistic man, something he regrets in letters and reports. In time he too fell ill and wanted to be relieved from the service. In 1680 he went home to Denmark to recuperate and be with his wife and children.

Nicolai Esmit, who took over after Iversen Dyppel, had 30 years’ experience of the West Indies, including Jamaica and Tortola. In Iversen Dyppel’s account books it is indicated that supplies were purchased by Esmit, who presumably lived on St. Thomas during Dyppel’s tenure.
However, Esmit did not meet the Company’s requirements and expectations. After a few years the Company persuaded Dyppel to go back to the West Indies, an offer he accepted. His ship was struck by rough weather and the crew had to live on starvation rations. After a few months the voyage ended in a disastrous mutiny. Dyppel was thrown overboard and the mutineers headed home, but the ship ran aground and sank at Carlstad in Sweeden. All aboard were rescued, but the mutineers were taken before a judge and executed. The wreck of the ship Havmanden (The Merman) has been investigated by Bohuslän Museum. It was found on the sea bed still loaded with 10,000 Flensburg bricks, neatly stacked as ballast.